Lead book review

Romance and rejection

‘Outsider’ ought to be an important word. To attach it to someone, particularly a writer, is to suggest that their helpless circumstances have condemned them to struggle and neglect. It is up to us — posterity — to look beyond the writers who had social advantages in the year 1880, say, and find those who

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A sensual Greek goddess

Joan Leigh Fermor died in 2003, aged 91, after falling in her bathroom in the house on a rocky headland of the Peloponnese which she had financed by selling her jewellery. Afterwards, whenever Joan’s husband and companion of nearly six decades reclined in her place on the sofa to read, eight of her 73 cats

More secrets and symbols

Being reflexively snotty about Dan Brown’s writing is like slagging off Donald Trump’s spelling: it just entrenches everyone’s position. In a world where a quarter of people read literally no books in any given year, can we give each other a break on this kind of thing? If you found Angels and Demons good fun,

The martyrdom of Proust

Why would a writer like Marcel Proust, who quivered and wheezed at the slightest sensation, decide to live surrounded by neighbours in one of the busiest parts of Paris? In 1906, at the age of 35, shortly after the death of his mother, he moved to a first-floor apartment at 102 Boulevard Haussmann. ‘I couldn’t

Songs of the blood and the sword

Jihadi Culture might sound like a joke title for a book, like ‘Great Belgians’ or ‘Canadian excitements’. But in this well-edited and serious volume Thomas Hegghammer — one of the world’s foremost experts on jihadism — has put together a collection of essays by an impressive group of scholars analysing what culture Islamism’s most adamant

Help over the hump

Losing our way in life’s trackless forest, whither should we turn for solace and advice? Wisdom used to be the special province of our elders, though for no better reason than that old people were less common than they are now. Aristotle had their measure: ‘As they have a lot of experience,’ he wrote, ‘they

Animals make us human

There was a time when biologists so scorned the attribution of human qualities to other animals that anthropomorphism was seen as the ultimate scientific sin and suitable only for children’s stories. Not anymore. Today the inner lives of other creatures are widely accepted as a major research frontier, and here are three books that reflect

The spirits of the age

Children started knocking on my door last month wearing Donald Trump face masks and asking for money. Indeed, one enterprising group turned up as Trump, Kim Jong-un, a Disney Princess, and — I’ll admit that this had to be explained to me — a zombie Taylor Swift. Truly a quartet of contemporary horrors. Halloween, it

Racism is a grey area

This book is an exercise in crying wolf that utterly fails to prove its main thesis: that Europe is abandoning its core liberal values under threat from a resurgent populist right. It is a largely fact-free polemic that passes itself off as an open-minded work of interview reportage. Yet if you can ignore the author’s

A dense, angry fable

Set partly in a future surveillance society, partly in ancient Carthage and 1970s Ethiopia, partly in contemporary Greece and London and partly in the synaptic passageways of the human brain, this huge sci-fi detective novel of ideas is so eccentric, so audaciously plotted and so completely labyrinthine and bizarre that I had to put it

How to be good

Suffering, wrote Auden, takes place ‘while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’. His poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ emphasises the mundanity of pain (‘even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course/ Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot’) and how irrelevant it is to all but the sufferer:

A Muslim’s insights into Christianity

I’m not a critic, I’m an enthusiast. And when you are an enthusiast you need to try your best to keep it in check when writing reviews, just in case your prodigious levels of excitement and, well, enthusiasm, threaten to overwhelm readers and only succeed in putting them off. Because people generally need a bit